Scoring With Your Events: The Essential Role of Music in Live Programs

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Scoring With Your Events: The Essential Role of Music in Live Programs "October 18, 2016

Try an experiment. Pop in a DVD (or stream) your favorite movie and fast forward to the climactic action sequence or love scene. Then mute the sound. I’ll wait.

Not quite the same, is it?

You will miss the sound effects – the explosions and squealing tires, or the sighs and whispers. But it is the absence of music that may do the most to make a scene seem flat, disjointed, or trivial. Music supplies an essential – and expected – dimension to the moviegoing experience. The same should be true of your events.

Used expertly, music can add variety and significance, reduce tedium, and provide unity to a live program of any size. My own agency devotes a great deal of effort not only to the selection and programming of music, but also to the technical aspects of integrating it into the meeting flow. We find that it may be the single greatest difference between an engaging and forgettable program. But it is also important to pay attention to the details; otherwise, music can create a distraction and detract from, rather than enhance, your program.

The Sound of Music

Fact: most business or membership events consist primarily of talking heads. Keynote addresses, presentations, awards, panels, and the other typical elements of live events all involve someone standing on stage – or appearing on video – and speaking to the audience. No matter how good the presenters, or how clever the accompanying slides, a certain sameness will result. Used adeptly, music can add variety to an event.

Scientists have shown that music involves totally different parts of the brain than the spoken word. The presence of music causes meeting attendees to listen in a different way. It reinvolves and reenergizes them, gives them a break from listening to presenters, and prepares them for the content to follow. We are careful not to use too much music, or to allow the music to become too continuous. On the contrary, it is often the entrances and exits of music, and the contrast between music and silence, that provides the “punctuation” many meetings need.

We help our clients look at session agendas as a whole. We identify opportunities and transitions throughout where the introduction of music could provide relief or change. The right music at the right time can perk up an audience and make them eager and receptive for the next program segment.

Music can also reduce tedium in an event. This is far from trivial; most sessions include necessary but tedious business – such as moving people onto and off the stage – that can be dry and awkward. Audiences can become bored and fidgety. Award presentations are notorious in this respect. Many include long roll calls, or extended periods where award winners make their way to the stage and stand for a grip, grin, and photograph, all in uncomfortable silence. Even the best-run programs suffer the vagaries of live theater, as a presenter misses an entrance or fails to get off the stage on time.

We look for the right music to smooth all of that out, while providing important cues to the audience. Audiences like to be clear about when they are supposed to applaud, when to quiet down, and when to expect something new. The right music will end with a “button” – a definitive phrase or rhythm that cues the audience “OK, clap now.” Music also enlivens the walk-in and walk-out portions of an event, especially if the selections crossfade from one to another instead of pausing as would be the case for a normal album or playlist.

Finally, music can add unity to an event. We often choose a particular style or genre of music and stick with it throughout a session in order to make disparate elements fit together. This can be subtle, such as underscoring everything with music with a country, hard rock, high tech, or island flavor, or as overt as using a song with lyrics that specifically relate to the event’s theme.

Some of our most memorable events have included an original song or original instrumental theme. The music has to be excellent, and instantly accessible in style, to work – but if you can deliver a “hit” there is nothing that can make an event more distinctive.

Striking the Wrong Chord

Of course, it is possible for music to detract from or even ruin an event. Usually this happens when – for one reason or another – the music calls attention to itself, rather than supporting the content of the session.

To further the film score analogy, a lot of great film music is not particularly good music at all. It succeeds because it heightens emotion and adds pace but rarely, if ever, gets noticed.

We are careful, of course, to make sure that music is not too loud – either deafening the audience or obscuring the words of speakers or voiceover announcements. But music that is too soft can sound like a mistake, or take away from the energy it is supposed to enhance. Music that begins or ends awkwardly, music that changes volume too abruptly, or music that is distorted by an inadequate sound system can also distract an audience to the detriment of the event; so we make sure that music cues are tested, optimized for volume, and rehearsed.

We also put a great deal of time into making sure that the choice of music is not distracting. It may be edgy to play “dub step” as walk-in music, but it is unlikely to endear you to an audience of middle-aged actuaries. The CEO may adore Norah Jones, but her music would not enliven the typical awards ceremony. At the worst extreme, music with inappropriate or offensive lyrics can lead to anger, complaints, or worse.

Tech Talk

Professional audio engineers use a dedicated hardware box known as an “IR” – sort of a souped-up iPod – for music and audio cues during events. An IR allows reliable and instantaneous cuing even from the middle of a cut of music. There are freeware programs that provide similar if somewhat more limited capabilities, and in a pinch, a program like iTunes can provide playback. However, we have found that these programs do not always provide professional results needed for reliability and precise timing.

An adequate sound system is also important for effective use of music in the event setting. Many public address systems – including those built into to hotel ballrooms and meeting rooms – are made for voice only. They can be quickly overloaded by full- range music. Large rooms with excessive reverberation – such as convention halls and atriums – require careful distribution and tuning of a sound system in order for music to be reproduced intelligibly.

Wondering about the legal aspects of using music as part of your event? In general, you are allowed to play copyrighted recordings as part of your event without paying additional fees. What you can’t do is turn around and distribute your own copies, even for free. So be careful not to include copyrighted music in recordings made at your event, and check with an intellectual property attorney if you have questions.


If you’re responsible for a mid-size to large event that seems lacking in energy or continuity, consider working with an experienced producer or production company that can provide you with artistic and technical expertise.

A good production partner will help you take apart your agenda and figure out ways that music can enhance your show flow. That partner will have an extensive repertoire of familiar and not-so- familiar music, and a lot of experience concerning what music that will work with your audience and program – and what music not so much. Your partner can also ensure that the technical aspects are taken care of so that your carefully chosen music adds to, and never detracts from, the content and business value of your program.

PCI has its roots in music. We believe that the enthusiasm with which audiences and clients greet our live events is a direct result of our skill at the selection and programming of music. Whether part of a video soundtrack, delivered by live musicians serving as a creative element or “pit orchestra,” or simply as transitional material, music is always at the top of our list of what makes an event succeed. We would be happy to discuss how music can help take your event to a new level.

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